Alby the Albatross and Plastic, Plastic Everywhere in the Ocean

albatross fledgling & plastic
Albatross chick stomach contents

That picture is not me, thank goodness. My name is Alby the Albatross, and it is nice to meet you. That was an albatross chick who most likely died from eating too much plastic. Hundreds of thousands of dead albatross chicks have been found with at least a third of their stomach full of plastic. Why would an albatross eat plastic? Unfortunately plastic is everywhere in the ocean now, not just in garbage patches. Every type of garbage imaginable makes it to the ocean. Remember what Gill tells Nemo in Finding Nemo? “All drains lead to the ocean, kid,” he said. There is so much garbage in general that remote tropical islands whose sand has only been touched by scuttling crabs and wayward seabirds have garbage engulfing their shores. Plastic is a threat to all ocean life, but the most insidious are the tiny plastic particles that microscopic plankton consume. Small fish eat the plankton and then successively larger fish eat each other until a predator like a shark nabs them. The shark then bioaccumulates, that is stores, all those plastic pieces in its body over time. Even humans carry a few pounds of plastic around in their bodies without knowing it!

The single most important thing you can do to relieve me and my oceanic friends from plastic in the ocean is to:
NOT BUY BOTTLED WATER! Use a reusable water bottle that you fill yourself with tap water, or filtered tap water. We thank you for helping us!

Farewell to Joy and Toola, Surrogate Sea Otter Moms Extraordinaire at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Joy the surrogate sea otter mother
Joy the Sea Otter (photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium)

I am sad to hear of the passing of one of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sea otter surrogate moms, Joy. It is also a sad day for the Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program (SORAC) because they have lost their top two prolific surrogate mothers in less than 6 months. I volunteered at SORAC for 4 years, and for the last 2 years I commuted two hours each way from Oakland to Monterey, California to make my Friday swing shift. It was an amazingly diverse bunch of people to work with, and for you statisticians, not only were the majority the paid workers and volunteers women, but an inordinate (50%?) were left handed!

I met Toola (who passed away March 3, 2012) when she was just “207,” and she had just become the first sea otter mother to adopt an orphan pup (#217) in captivity. SORAC had just installed closed circuit video cameras, and it was a joy to watch Toola so lovingly groom and feed her new pup.

Up to then, orphaned pups were cared for, hands on, by human surrogate mothers (or otter pops as we lovingly called the male workers!). The bond I felt holding that tiny and frail sea otter pup, only days old, in the palm of my hand is only matched by the birth of my own human children! That pup is now an adult exhibit sea otter, which makes me feel quite old. The first creature I ever bottle fed was a sea otter pup, and I had painstakingly hand shucked dozens of clams to make its formula! Every human sea otter surrogate mom would respond promptly to a pup’s signature ear piercing scream, “eek, eek, eek” as they would to a human baby’s cry.

Now onto boisterous Joy: I just remember hearing the radio and telephone calls that Joy was once again interacting with kayakers, and that it was time to pick her up. I occasionally participated in field rescues, but most of the time I was on the receiving end at the aquarium where I helped to cart around (SORAC uses dog kennels), weigh, and help the workers and veterinarian with a physical exam. There is nothing more surreal than seeing, under bright examination lights, a once screaming otter subdued under anesthesia with his or her massive set of chompers clasped around an intubation tube!

Once deemed captive, my only interaction with Joy was to throw food into her tank, and later clean her tank (the stench of which I remember quite well-rotting seafood mixed with sea otter poop). At least with her, we no longer had to use the Darth Vader suit that consisted of a black welder’s helmet and black poncho that we used with releasable sea otters so they did not imprint on humans. I also got to help with a few training sessions with her. Most sea otters adore shrimp and will gobble it up, and will cast aside squid thrown onto their chest!

So I hope both Toola and Joy are receiving all the shrimp they can eat up above, and I wish the next generation of surrogate sea otter moms good luck as they have a tough act to follow!

Aquarius Reef Base and Mission Aquarius by the numbers

Aquarius Reef Base & Mission Aquarius
Aquarius Reef Base photo by DJ Roller

I have been captivated by July 2012 Mission Aquarius and I wanted to share

Aquarius Reef Base and Mission Aquarius by the Numbers:

550 peer-reviewed scientific publications since 1993
120 feet-Aquarius can withstand pressure to
114 missions total
81 tons is what Aquarius weighs
63 feet underwater is where Aquarius rests
50 years of underwater exploration is what Mission Aquarius is celebrating
43 feet is the length of Aquarius
21 July end of Mission Aquarius and (hopefully not!) the last mission there
16 NASA NEEMO (astronaut) missions conducted at Aquarius
10 average days per mission
9 feet in diameter (Aquarius)
8 exterior viewports
6– number of people Aquarius can house
5-number of marine zones that the Florida National Marine Sanctuary is divided into for study
3.5 miles offshore of Florida is where Aquarius Reef Base lies
3 high pressure air supplied undersea stations provide air and communication to Aquarius
3 number of times Dr. Sylvia Earle has visited Aquarius
$3 million is the cost to run Aquarius Reef Base for one year
2 pressurized compartments (Aquarius)
1 charismatic goliath grouper

Please help me fill in any numbers, and sign Dr. Sylvia Earle’s petition to “Save Our Ocean Through Exploration” and donate (for cool perks!) to Save Aquarius Reef Base

Thank you!

Why Manta Rays Are Becoming Endangered (Moby the Manta Ray Part 3)

Manta Ray & Traditional Chinese Medicine
Manta Ray (photo by Cherilyn Jose)
It has been brought to my attention that even though I am a very fascinating animal, many humans do not understand why us manta rays need their help to gain protection worldwide. Here are the reasons why:

1. Manta rays are now being targeted by fishermen and killed for their gill rakers, as opposed to being killed by “accidental” by-catch.

2. Gill rakers (the feathery part of my gills that helps me sieve out microscopic food from the seawater around me) are used in a controversial new formula of Traditional Chinese Medicine. That formula is not listed in the classic textbooks.

3. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) reports that the worldwide catch of manta rays has quadrupled in 7 years.

4. As the IUCN (International Union for Conserving Nature) states, we “are easy to target because of (our) large size, slow swimming speed, aggregative behavior, predictable habitat use, and lack of human avoidance.”

5. In short, we are highly migratory due to the seasonal and geographic variability of our food source, plankton. We are not protected in international waters, nor off the waters of many heavily fished countries.

6. One of the most important reasons we are vulnerable to extinction is that female manta rays only give birth to one pup every 2-3 years, and over her lifetime will only produce as many pups (14) as a great white shark does in one year (16).

7. The good news is that manta ray tourism worldwide brings in $100 million in revenue versus $500 per kilogram of gill rakers. We are worth more alive than dead, duh!

You can help me and my fellow manta rays by visiting Manta Ray of Hope and watching their convincing video and by visiting Project Aware to sign a petition or donate money.

Meet Shelley the Chambered Nautilus

Chambered Nautilus
Chambered Nautilus (photo by John White)

Sigh, I get no respect unless I am dead and my shell is mounted on a human’s wall. My name is Shelley, and I am a chambered nautilus. I am so unlike my sexy and charismatic cephalopod cousins. You have probably heard of them because you eat them! There is the intelligent and camouflage master called the octopus, the swiftly darting and flashing squid (also known as calamari), and the hovering aliens known as cuttlefish. Well, maybe you have not heard of a cuttlefish, but any bird owner is familiar with their cuttlebone, which is used by birds to sharpen their beaks. Once you learn about their puppy-like behavior and the lightning quick manner in which they use their two front tentacles to nab prey, I am sure you will fall in love with them!

Unfortunately I fall into the category of “things that go bump in the night.” I emerge like a vampire from the pitch black depth of 2000 feet (610 meters) to the slightly less pitch dark depth of 328 feet (100 meters) at night to feed.

I look like an upside down snail (another creature that does not get much respect unless it is cooked on a plate in front of a human!) with thin tentacles waving every which way. My shell, which is highly sought after by human collectors, makes me the evolutionary link between the other shell-less cephalopods and the rest of the animal kingdom. As a chambered nautilus I should be flattered by that, but it just makes me feel like a freak in comparison!

But I do love my shell! My many internal shell chambers (hence the “chamber” in my name) are lined with this beautiful pearlescent sheen, and they are what make me so appealing to humans when my shell is sliced in half and used as a decoration. I grow more chambers as I get older and grow larger. These chambers are essential to my well being as I force air in and out of them so I can rise and fall in the water column. I am like a miniature submarine that controls its buoyancy by capturing and releasing water.

I would love to dazzle you with the chambered nautilus’ population numbers across all the oceans, but not only do I not know, but humans have no idea either! They do not even have an estimate. Humans can count imported shells, but like many species that go extinct because of human causes, no one knows that they are killing the last member of a species. So please stop buying chambered nautilus shells before we go extinct! Thank you!

Update: In the United States, the Chambered Nautilus is listed under the Endangered Species Act. Trade of its shell is not being regulated 🙁 so the Chambered Nautilus is vulnerable to overfishing.

Also see 10 Awesome Cuttlefish Facts
Giant Squid Myths-True or False?